Stories abound of how musicians navigated the full-stop nature of the pandemic. For English singer-songwriter Yola, who plays the Showbox Sunday, the extended COVID-19 pause gave her a chance to do a deep dive into herself with “Stand For Myself,” the follow-up album to her critically acclaimed 2019 debut “Walk Through Fire.”
While her introduction to the public came as a country-soul force of nature who earned multiple Grammy nods, including best Americana album and best American roots performance (despite hailing from Bristol, England), the woman born Yolanda Claire Quartey has expanded her stylistic palette considerably with “Stand For Myself.”
With Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys returning as producer, “Stand For Myself” finds the sounds of Yola’s childhood bubbling up and encompassing everything from hooky protest jams (“Diamond Studded Shoes”) and Bacharach-flavored pop (“Like a Photograph”) to Gamble & Huff-flavored disco (“Dancing Away in Tears”) and silk sheet R&B (“Now You’re Here”). In the process, Yola did a self inventory, having already worked to hold onto her center while weathering a tsunami of success.
“It became apparent during lockdown when I was adding songs to my coffer of tunes, that I was writing about something,” she recalled in a late-February phone interview. “It felt like the arc of my journey from being a little of a dual-mapped person to seeming like I was on my path properly felt like the inspiration to the arc of this record, a moment where life had realized some sense of timing. I negotiated how to get that for myself and how to have control over my own life — not anyone else’s — just mine. It was quite astounding how often I was in situations where people wanted to have control over my life and they didn’t even realize they were doing that.”
A major factor allowing Yola to find the greater truth she was seeking on this project was the involvement of a female-centric supporting cast. Among the major contributors were less-familiar talents like Joy Oladokun and Ruby Amanfu and better-known names like Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby.
“I feel like with the first record, I was so surrounded by white men,” Yola explained. “It was my connections with women of varying background, hue and persuasion that gave me this wonderful ability to truly excavate everything I needed to [dig up] on this record. I was blessed to have a clutch of women that would get me there fully understanding where I was trying to go.”
The Carlile and Hemby connection came via The Highwomen. Yola was invited to contribute to the self-titled 2019 album by this all-female supergroup, which also includes Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. Hemby caught Yola playing at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Festival, professed her love of the latter’s debut album and insisted she was going to hip Carlile to the British vocal powerhouse. The Highwomen project followed in its wake, and doors of opportunity continued opening for Yola.
When she flew over to RCA Studio A in Nashville, “I met Brandi along with Natalie Hemby, who writes on five out of the 12 songs on my current record. I met Maren and Amanda there,” Yola said. “I met (producer) Dave Cobb there. Obviously, I’ve been on the road with Dave and Chris Stapleton as well, so we got to see quite a lot of each other. [Dave] was doing the soundtrack to this movie [about Elvis Presley] and we had already connected.”
Cobb suggested that Yola should audition for the Presley biopic, and she landed the role of gospel-star-turned-rock-and-roll pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
“With this role, I get to redress some of the inconsistencies in rock ‘n’ roll’s etymology,” Yola said. “I know (as Tharpe) I’m the jumpoff point for Elvis, as a character in the movie, but without me, you don’t have him. Without him, you don’t have the entire scene. The main thing is how [Tharpe] gave people showcases and discovered them. She single-handedly brought us people that might not have been seen or heard of at the same level, as well as obviously inventing that style of playing that nobody was doing. No one had been distorting their amp and playing and no one had been bending the strings the way she was — or at all. All of this innovation changed everything. Plus she was very out about being queer.”
Yola is eager to share the entirety of her “Stand For Myself” material on her headlining tour this spring. Anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Nick Movshon (Sharon Jones; Amy Winehouse) and drummer Aaron Frazer (Durand Jones and the Indications), Yola promises both substance and sizzle with her show.
“I knew this record needed a rhythm section steeped in disco and funk. Feel in the pocket was paramount to the drum sections we had,” she said. “We’ve been opening for Chris Stapleton doing short sets, so finally we get the full-fat arrangement, delivery and everything. I learned about how I connect to this record and what is coming to the fore in these live performances. It’s also an opportunity to present these topics that can be either taken on either a surface or deeper level and meeting people where they’re at.”